In the United States, conventional wisdom holds that you should raise your child to be religious. Taking the kids to church is the default; leaving them home requires justification. Push parents to explain why they should pass on their religion—apart from a principled urge to keep the faith—and they’re likely to tell you studies prove that kids do better with religion than without it.
But is religion really good for kids? That might depend on what kind of child you want to raise.
Several studies do seem to corroborate the conventional wisdom that kids raised with religion—any religion—are psychologically healthier than kids raised without it. The gap here is small but real: Some researchers link religious affiliation and regular church attendance with a mild boost in children’s mental health. That data is reported by parents, though, which presents an obvious problem: Religious parents might simply be more inclined than secular parents to view their kids through rose-colored stained glass. But teachers have also reported that kids who attend religious services have stronger self-control and react better to discipline.
One reason why children in religious families might be better behaved is that they think there’s more at stake. According to the so-called sanctification theory, religion imbues familial relationships with sacred significance, and religious institutions attach moral meaning to certain behaviors. Religious parents might see childrearing as sacred work and strive to raise kids with self-control and manners. Religious kids might also see good behavior as a moral imperative and strive to maintain discipline, not just for their own sake, but to please their parents—and God.
But the question of causality claws at researchers’ confidence in these findings and theories. John Bartkowksi, a professor of sociology at University of Texas at San Antonio, wonders whether church attendance really leads to good behavior—or whether it might be the other way around.
“It may be that kids who are already well-behaved are the only ones who can get into religious communities,” Bartkowski told me. “Their parents might feel they’ll fit in because they’re compliant and able to sit still.” Self-control, in other words, might lead to church service, and not vice versa.
One other related possibility of many is that religious parents may have more respect for authority, and they may reinforce obedience in their children more than secular parents do.
Based on this research, you might think that raising religious children is neutral at worst, preferable at best, and probably worth the hassle of dragging the kids out of bed every Sunday. But there are some major pitfalls on the parental road to Damascus. Parents who argue over religion can actually make their children less happy and more disobedient—so make sure you and your spouse have settled the great transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation debate before taking your kid to Mass. Fundamentalist and conservative religions, moreover, run the risk of teaching kids who violate dogma to hate themselves. If you tell your gay child he’s “intrinsically disordered” because of his identity, or exorcise him of the “demon of homosexuality,” his mental health is likely to be quite low.
Aside from these obvious drawbacks, there’s another, subtler problem with raising religious children: All that talk of snake-inspired subterfuge, planet-cleansing floods, and apocalyptic horsemen might hamper kids’ ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality—or even to think critically.
That’s the implication of two recent studies published in Cognitive Science in which researchers attempted to gauge perceptions of reality in religious and secular children. (The religious children were all from Christian families, from a variety of denominations.) In one study, the researchers read realistic stories and fantasy tales to the kids. Some of the fantasy tales featured familiar biblical events—like the parting of the Red Sea—but with non-biblical characters. (In the retelling of the Red Sea story, Moses was called John.) Others featured non-biblical but clearly magical events—the parting of a mountain, for instance—as well as non-biblical characters.
In another study, the researchers read children three different versions of the same story. One version had a biblical character performing a miracle, like Jonah escaping a whale’s stomach, and noted that God was behind the miracle. A second version told of the same miraculous event, but left out any mention of God. A third retold the story realistically, with no miracles and no God.